The world according to algorithms

I wrote this post over three years ago! Gosh – kinda of more scary now. Yikes.

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My personal, trusted search agent, my husband, cut out an article for me about DemandMedia, an innovator in offering a service for web owners to pull algorithm driven, highly moentizable content – fast and cheap.

Then a few minutes later I read about Cheaptweet.com and how it uses an algorithm to mine Twitter feeds for deals on clothes, electronics and services.

I began to notice a pattern.

The next day I read about new search methods that were smarter because of, you guessed it, algorithmic technology.

Now with a thud, I realized, a bit to my horror, that algorithmic logic drives a big part of our lives. It drives our searches and, as a result, what we learn about. It drives which ads we see and crunches through a formula to present us with the most relevant, contextual based ad possible. It filters what offers we see or don’t see online.  And the ever iterative algorithmic engines can even choose our future mates.

I even think some algorithm predicted the end of the world to happen sometime in 2012 *sigh*.

It then blindingly dawned on me (better late than never) that my perception of the world was being shaped by algorithms – aggregation of data points. I was taken aback by the fact that my world perception was not formed as I thought by my experiences with real people – but by mechanical machines spitting out numerical answers to questions I had not yet asked.

I realize I see the world through number colored lens. I am not sure I like the effect.

This shouldn’t be bothering me – but it does.

Judy Shapiro

http://twitter.com/judyshapiro

The Surprised Entrepreneur-Diary of new venture (Entry #4): A tale of two VC meetings.

For the last 3 months I have been very focused on sales of our Interaction Engine system and we are doing well on that score. As a result, though, I have not really shaped the business plan and the structure of our company for the inevitable VC round to come. Getting funding has not been an urgent requirement and it seemed far better to generate real revenue and then go for funding.

So as we are chugging along, our work has gotten the attention of two VCs who reached out for a meeting. This was my first introduction to the world of VCs and I confess, the meetings were startling and sobering; leaving me strangely ambivalent about the journey ahead on this front.

VC meeting number 1.

It was a rainy, NY winter day and we decided to meet at a coffee shop. I knew that this fund was more an incubator type which offered me the potential of being part of a startup community. It seemed like a good idea that I perhaps become part of the NY “Tech/ CEO club” since now, I am an outlier. I don’t hang out in Meetup sessions and I am not trekking across the country chasing the cool tech conferences (OK – I confess I am going to SXSW but only because they asked me to speak).

I enter the coffee shop with only the vaguest sense of what the VC looked like (his Twitter pix was decidedly not very useful). It took me a solid 8 minutes to spot him. As I approach I see this 30ish guy with a quirky winter cone hat that was just 2 degrees “off” – IMO wandering into “silly land.” It was hard not to laugh out loud at the effect – but I held my composure.

I sit down and we start chatting.  I was curious to understand his investing philosophy. His focus decidedly was on individual technologies – why Foursquare will be huge or how this new app model will revolutionize some trend or other. When I wondered with him about the lack of a clear business model which limits their practical use for marketers, he dismissed that concern with a wave of the hand. “Well, that’s won’t be a problem for long – once the old guard is gone.”

Wow. Clearly that meant me. I took his comment to mean that only the “newer” generation have the depth to understand new marketing technologies. I was dumbfounded and I was shaken. The gap between us was, technologically speaking, generational – perhaps never to be bridged. But mostly I was stunned at how immature his thinking was about how the business of marketing really works. I was shaken knowing his company was helping drive the evolution of marketing without a clue about what marketers really need.

The rest of the conversation was a haze TBH. I left traumatized and angry at how dismissive he was of the impracticality of his vision of marketing technology evolution.

VC meeting number 2

This CEO leads a well-respected large VC shop that does $2- 5MM deals. I had been introduced to this VC through a mutual colleague and we met at his office one snowy day.  He sat down in comfortable business casual attire that was in keeping with his experienced CEO role.

We started by talking about his company which was relocating to the East Coast from the West Coast. Interesting move and I asked him why. “Increasingly the smart money is coming to NY as this where many of the major new media and marketing operating business trends are evolving,” he said.

This was my dream VC – he understood the space and the problem my company was trying to solve – how to practically create the “many to many” marketing model. We compared notes on how the technology in this space was similar to CRM in the 1990s – full of possibility but lacking in coordinated systems to activate the technology. I suggested that we are a bit like what Siebel who, at the time, integrated all the telemarketing technologies into the system we now know as CRM. I feel that is what we are doing for the emerging “many to many” marketing model. We met for a solid 90 minutes at which point he asked me “What next?” Shockingly, I had no “ask.” I had been so traumatized by the first VC, that I had not really expected a question like that. I stumbled around and just admitted – “I don’t know.”

But then I turned it around and asked him: “How would you categorize my company? We are part system integrator, part content and media company. We are a “creative shop” in that we create customer interactions with technology. Are we a tech company, a services company?”

I could see he was sensitive to the dilemma of my question. Finally, he said, “I would put you in the digital media space.” I was shocked until he hastened to add: “You need to be defined somehow so people know to work with you and help you.” But in his gentle smile I could see his answer left him unsatisfied as well.

We parted agreeing to keeping up the dialogue. As I walked out of his office, I felt cautiously optimistic that the work we are doing is needed in the market.

One thing I learned from both meetings – the journey of starting a company will continue to be a journey of surprise. I never expected to have so dramatically divergent experiences as I tentatively start down the path of funding my company – even if I don’t know exactly what type of company I am creating.

All I know is that the “smart investment money is going towards the business operating companies” and that’s me. Cool – right?

Judy Shapiro

The Twitter Secret for business. The simple, definitive “why” of Twitter – Rant #2.

Back in July, I wrote this first rant called: The Twitter Secret – why & how to use Twitter for B2B and technology businesses. Rant #1, where I give a detailed explanation of how to use Twitter properly in business applications. By now I would have thought most people would have figured out the “why” of Twitter.

But no.

Back in July, when I wrote this post, The Pew Institute reported that for 2009, Twitter awareness was at a remarkable 80%+ but usage was relatively low at around 7 – 8%. People tied themselves in knots to explain it. Many suggested that Twitter’s relative youth accounted for its low usage numbers and that surely over time, its influence would only grow.

Guess what. A year later and the latest Pew Institute usage numbers for 2010 say Twitter is still at 8%.  This time around, it’s harder for people to explain it away in the same way. So now a new crop of answers try to explain the awareness/ usage gap.

Therefore, in the interest of efficiency, I will explain the secret of Twitter in 140 words or less (yeah I know I am cheating – so sue me).

Twitter is important to you if:

  • You need to distribute a lot of content, e.g. media people, reporters, PR/ publicity folks,  agency folks, marketers, analysts, bloggers AND online commerce site
  • You need to consume a lot of content, , e.g. media people, reporters, PR/ publicity folks,  agency folks, marketers, analysts and bloggers
  • You want to outreach to specific media/ people in your industry
  • You want to outreach to specific customers or customer groups
  • You hope to develop a better way to hear customer input
  • You hope to figure out what Twitter is REALLY good at, write a book and get rich :)

So unless you fall into one of the categories on this list, don’t worry about Twitter for right now. It’s probably not that crucial to your business. Go ahead – you can definitively cross this question off your list. Now you know.

Happy new year!

Judy Shapiro

 

The Surprised Entrepreneur – Diary of new venture – Entry #3:

“Mama never told me there’d be weeks like this…”

It has been a while since my last entry and I am relieved to say it is mostly for good reasons. Over the last few months, this little venture has begun to take hold – to wit:

  • I have been on the speaking tour about The Interaction Engine capping it off with a spiel at ad:tech this month.
  • We have closed two new clients – one in the consumer electronics space and one in the mobile app space.
  • I am getting better at presenting our system in meetings – now I can kinda explain it in about 30 minutes. It still falls far short of the 2 minute elevator pitch – but hey – we are getting better.
  • A number of marketing and technology companies have contacted us to “partner” – not sure what that means though
  • We have done a few presentations to media buying agencies as they are challenged to “buy” social media. They are interested in working with us (again – no idea what that means)
  • Most important – revenue is beginning to accrue

Yet, despite the clear progress and momentum – I recognize the utter fragility of this venture. Of the dozen or so folks that are part of this company – most (but not all) are getting paid some compensation. No one is getting what they deserve – yet.

But my biggest challenge is that as we get more noticed, there are far more opportunities that need to be assessed and prioritized. Fundamentally, these opportunities run along three basic lines:

  • Technology Partnerships – there are 4 companies that we are talking to now in the marketing technology space. These companies are anxious to partner with someone like us because often these tech companies have no easy distribution channel. A cool recommendation engine is nice – but it’s hard selling a “stand-alone” technology to a big brand or agency. As a quasi “system integrator” of social media technologies – they see our Interaction Engine as solving this major channel issue for them.  thsi is not a pr 
  • Funding Options – my initial plan was to sell the Engine we have now (does not require any development) to generate about $500K in revenue. While that plan is still in play – I realize that getting to that sales threshold might take longer than I can wait to begin the second phase of this company – to develop/ sell “self-serve” integrated social media programs to SMB via web hosts. I am encouraged by experienced colleagues who tell me I can go get funding now with what we have. TBH, I am still unclear whether any VC would consider this investable. My colleagues are so confident that this can get funded that they are willing to spend their own time over the next few months to work on this. On the one hand, that’s a funding gift that I would be crazy to reject. But on the other hand, it will still require my time for an exercise that I’m not convinced will have a successful outcome. Getting VC funding is a huge time hog – not matter who helps you. I keep wanting to put it off or get a traditional loan to ease the short term cash crunch. this is since this is not any way understand how to make this spaceing this work. it is frustating to say the least but this need
  • Media Alliances – Unlike most other marketing technology companies, I focused on the technology platform but I built it within a holistic system that includes an organized set of content assets from a diversity of publishers. To me, content is not king – but rather the juicy bait to start the engagement process which is why I had to collect relevant content assets. So while I spend a considerable amount of time building these alliances – there are many more people looking to partner with us because so many content producers and writers have been caught in the tumult of “freep” (free and/ or cheap) digital content distribution. In our system, these folks have a voice and a stake, so we solve a problem for them too. The problem is deciding who we can take on.

Most interestingly (and yes – it is a surprise), it seems that our Interaction Engine System (a coordinated, tech mashup of a monetizable “community of interest”) is an approach that can integrate disparate marketing activities into an operational program. In essence, instead of pitching an individual program to a client where I have to plug into their operations – we are being seen as our own ecosystem and other marketing programs and/ or technologies have to plug into us. I won’t say I planned it that way – but I am loving how this is playing out.

Now on to my biggest “what’s keeping me up list?” for this entry:

  • Knowing which contacts are worth pursuing on the tech front, on the funding front and on the editorial front. The response to my presentations has been great – but overwhelming actually.
  • Keeping the pressure up on the sales front –  our issue now is too many great leads and not enough time to follow them all up.
  • Keeping the team motivated and monetized – always a struggle whether you are a new company or an old one

The next four weeks tend to be intense because marketing budgets are being finalized so we need to keep the pressure up – yet people’s mind are on the holidays. This requires an elegant and thoughtful approach to sales (I hope we are up to it).

Day after day, it seems the ride I am on gets more thrilling, more scary and more substantial. As the stakes keep going up, Mama never told me there would be weeks like this where too much is happening too fast. But I guess that beats the other option: too little happening too slow; by a mile.

“So dear Mama – I am grateful you taught me to appreciate a good ride when I see one which is exactly what I am doing  - even though it feels like I caught a tiger by the tail.”

I don’t intend to let go now.

Judy Shapiro

In the data business – stuff can go really wrong.

Here’s an ironic but sad way many marketing efforts can go awry.

Take a look at this picture.  This email blast from a tech company (left unnamed to protect the stupid) was offering “A deduplication guide.”

See my inbox :)

The dangers, difficulties and disasters of database management.

The Twitter Secret – why & how to use Twitter for B2B and technology businesses. Rant #1

This is one of those hissy fit posts I sometimes write in frustration when I see my friends at B2B or technology companies struggling with new marketing technologies when they shouldn’t be struggling at all. There isn’t a CEO, COO, CMO et al friend of mine who has not said to me recently; “I don’t get Twitter/ We don’t do Twitter”. URRGGGHHHH!!! This gets me going because using Twitter (or not) should be an informed choice not a result of ignorance. Yet, the lack of Twitter savvy spanning companies of every size, often reflects a lack of marketing leadership from internal marketing folks and more often than not, the agencies that serve them. Sorry – agency people, but nearly all of my corporate side colleagues express a near universal lack of confidence in their agency’s depth in newer marketing tactics.

So, here my dear friends who are CEOs, COOs, CMO, CIOs, CTOs  and directors of companies of all sorts, is the definitive guide to why Twitter matters for B2B and technology businesses. Feel free to share it with your agencies – gratis.

A deeper dive – who really uses Twitter anyway?

First it helps to put Twitter usage in perspective. A recent report from Edison Research gives us an excellent reference point (here is a PDF –   http://trenchwars.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/twitter_usage_in_america_2010.pdf )

Most importantly, it helps to understand that, despite the hyper buzz, at most only about 7% of US population actually uses Twitter despite an astonishing, almost universal 85% level of awareness.

So who are these “7%’ers”? IMHO it happens to be those people who pushed Twitter into the face of “Judy Consumer” with such success – the media/ marketing/ PR world. These folks love Twitter because it is a digital, communal bulletin board, water cooler and late night hangout all in one place.  It’s an efficient amalgam of interesting stuff, useless stuff, ego stuff and occasionally a real gem, like a source for a story. Hence media’s love affair with Twitter and the correspondingly high awareness among the Judy Consumers out there.

Now that we have framed the Twitter picture correctly and hung it on the wall, it’s time to make practical use of it in our marketing decorating scheme.

The secret of Twitter for B2B and technology companies.

At the most basic level, Twitter is mainly about;

1) Listening to what’s going on

2) Connecting with specific reporters, stakeholders and influencers and

3) Broadcasting to a large following

Let’s break this out in more detail (and for you impatient CEO friends of mine – I used as many bullets as I could for quick scanning :)

1) Listening:

Why do it?

In this mode, Twitter offers three excellent strategic advantages:

  • It is one of the best research/ early warning brand monitoring systems on the planet. With Twitter, you’ll learn of gathering negative corporate sentiment storms before they become too big or too hot to handle.
  • It provides you with an easy way to identify key stakeholders for your brand within the industry, media and regulatory groups.
  • Finally, if you become astute at listening, you can learn the hottest trending topics that can provide powerful platforms for your branding and any Corporate Social Responsibility campaigns/ programs you have in mind (more on this later).

How to execute:

  • I’ll start with a “don’t”. Don’t just follow people who follow you otherwise you will have too much noise. Be very judicious in who you follow.
  • To know who to follow at first, spend a week identifying well respected people, analysts, thought leaders who publish in leading trade journals and follow them. An agency can help you identify important tweeters in your space, but supplement that with your own research.
  • At this stage, focus on quality of information not on quantity of who you follow or gathering Twitter followers. Also, at this stage, do not try and outreach. Give yourself time to get accustomed to the character of the Twitter-sphere.

Who should do it:

Set it up so that everyone in the company follows the same key people for a consistent flow of information. Specifically, though, here is who should be “listening in”:

  • Everyone in the “C” suite:
    • I hear you, my C level friends kvetching that you don’t have time. Nonsense. To check Twitter every day is at most a 15 minutes task spread through the day. The rewards can be tremendous as it can be amazingly energizing and motivating – like a decadent chocolate treat at 3:00 in the afternoon.
  • Every marketing person in the company
  • Key people at the agency.

Best used with:

Nothing in marketing should live in isolation and Twitter is no exception. For the listening side of the Twitter value equation, this is best used as part of the strategic process that determines corporate messaging platforms, as in for example, a corporate social responsibility program. This provides a powerful “real time” voice in the internal strategic corporate brand tracking processes.

2) Connecting:

Why do it?

Simply, Twitter gives you direct access to media and industry thought leaders: Think of Twitter as an extension of your PR machine since you get unmediated access to many reporters that are important to you.  Focus on identifying analysts, trade journals and event organizers that are the gatekeeper for what the industry sees. You want to know what these folks think about.

How to execute Twitter for media/ industry outreach:

Strategically, it is wise to remember that Twitter provides the “public” with a very probing view into your company. I suggest you confine the connecting part of Twitter to people who have both intelligence and sensitivity to recognize that their personal brand will get attached to the corporate brand. It is something not easily outsourced to an agency TBH.

It’s therefore best to set up a formal program and a great example is Robert Scoble of Rackspace. He is one arguably one of the most respected tech Twitterers out there, yet his work is supportive of the Rackspace brand. The point is pick a person/ people with the temperament, passion and intelligence to do you proud.

Once your Twitter Dream team is in place, tactically, here’s how you do media outreach on the Twit-o-sphere. Respect the fact that Twitterers are etiquette sensitive so you want to give yourself time to learn the courtesies:

  • Start by simply retweeting the articles of these influencers that interest you. Be sure you actually look at what you are retweeting and that it is of high quality. What you retweet reflects what interests YOU, so please please don’t just retweet something from important people you follow without looking at it first. If you like, the retweet can have a brief personal comment just to add a bit interest.
  • After you get a feel, then directly respond to the tweets of key influencers with a thank you for sharing something interesting or a comment on their observation. You can even disagree with the Tweeter, but always keep the karma positive and always include their Tweet handle via the @ sign. Twitterers hate rudeness or snarky for the sake to impress. Keep it honest, simple and direct. BTW -don’t expect anyone to answer or acknowledge you. Just keep at it, over time it will pay off.
  • Once you gain some confidence (and that is key), you are now in a position to use Twitter to promote your own agenda using the platform of these contacts. This is the real payoff and it works like this.From your listening stage, you may have identified a powerful positioning platform I call the “ignition point”. Then:
      • Have a blog or article written about the ignition point.
      • Then create a google search alert on the topic and/ or the people within the field who cover the topic.
      • When an article comes up (and it won’t take long if you “listened well”), then comment on the article at the article’s website and point back to your article.
      • Once you have commented, then tweet about the article and include a link to the article – not to your blog. Why? Because people are more likely to discover your article if it is introduced on a well known website rather than a directed link in a Twitter update you post.

Quality content and ideas will attract attention and recognition. Not every platform will work – but over time, you will have a consistent engine for getting your ideas out into the marketplace.

Who should do it?

I will start by suggesting who should NOT do it — an agency should not do this unless they are totally immersed in your business. Period. Otherwise, pick a trusted communicator within the business. They can be in any department: product management, technology, marketing – doesn’t matter as long as they have your trust.

Best used with:

Combining this aspect of Twitter with LinkedIn rocks. Specifically, you want to join LinkedIn Groups from media/ industry thought leaders and you should also start your own LinkedIn group where white papers, company news and updates can be shared.  Continue to post/ share (they can be linked so it is easy to do once) regularly.

3) Broadcasting:

This one is easy because IMHO, as a B2B or technology company you need not worry about the broadcasting aspect of Twitter. Honest. The broadcast aspect of Twitter works best if you are a B2C company where you can REGULARLY pump out promo’s which is how you will build your Twitter following. Otherwise, it really is a waste of effort because in the B2B world, it’s not about scatter broadcasting but narrow casting in your segment. It’s better to have 600 well placed followers then 600,000 “whoever”. I know having a big Twitter following feels good – but that’s not a good enough reason to spend time building it.  The only possible exception to this rule is if you are B2B company hell bent on becoming heavy duty content producer. If not, believe me when I tell you it is a waste of energy.

There you have it – the why and how of Twitter for business. But probably the uber power secret of Twitter is this — simply to show up every single day. Consistency pays off in dividends – but don’t despair because it will take months of steady, deliberate practice. But patience and persistence will pay off.

Now dear friends that you understand Twitter, let’s use this power for good – please.

Judy Shapiro

Is it possible for agencies to embrace marketing “complexity”?

The ad business is going through a change not seen in 3 decades.

For 3 decades there were three chairs at the marketing table — agencies, brands and the media. All 3 parts technologically evolved in a symbiotic “one:many” model to grow the business. Agencies “produced once and ran many times”; brands (one) had a message to get out to many and each media property created its media content for many people.

But Internet was a fourth chair that came to the table. It started to dominate the other three chairs utterly disrupting the “one:many” efficient, profitable marketing model in favor of a “many:many” model brought on by social media and mobile technologies.

As technology continued to evolve much faster than the other chairs at the table, the result of this disequilibrium was first felt by the media which suffered a near fatal blow. Agencies, now are feeling the full brunt of this dynamic largely because the “complexity” of social media is taking more and more of the traditional ad budgets.

So while the business has gotten more complex, agencies are trapped in an old “one:many” business model and have no clear way to evolve. Clients do not pay often for agency’s’ technological learning curves (how many agency folks were at TechCrunch Disrupt for instance???). And agencies can not charge $10,000 for a bunch of twitter updates (if you want to sleep peacefully at night).

That’s why in this new scenario even agencies that want to embrace complexity — can not because the profitable “one:many” marketing business model does not support the “many:many” business model. Case in point. Digital media buying agencies are paid as a percentage of billings, but since there are few billings in social media — they do not create those types of programs for their clients. There is no incentive for a digital agency to develop a program with no/ low billings and high complexity – now is there?

So before agencies can embrace marketing complexity – we have to figure out how to make money at it. Talk about complex.

Judy Shapiro

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